The Bengals broke for their bye week Tuesday afternoon with the late Thomas Howard heavy on their minds. When cornerback Adam Jones, the first player off the field, came into the locker room from the walkthrough he pulled over a reporter.
"How terrible is that about T?" asked the shaken Jones, who proceeded to recall his former Bengals teammate killed in a car accident Monday in Oakland.
"He was one of the guys that kept everyone together," Jones said. "When we went bowling as a team, or did something as a team, he was always helping out. He's a guy you're really going to miss. I talked to him about a month ago. You ask yourself, 'Why so soon?' He's got two little girls that are his pride and joy.
"I'm going to make sure we send some flowers. And not just some. It's going to be known he was loved in this locker room."
Jones said the players are going to hang Howard's No. 53 jersey in the defensive meeting room for the rest of the season and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is working on it.
"He will be remembered here; he will not soon be forgotten," said Vinny Rey, another linebacker.
According to reports, Howard's car was going an estimated 100 miles per hour when he hit a semi and went flying over the median, where it hit another car and killed the driver.
Rey, one of Howard's locker mates during Howard's 18 games in Cincinnati, said he was having "a tough time" since hearing the news Monday night. It was only 18 games, but Howard was a big factor in revamping the locker room chemistry that had become toxic in the latter stages of the Chad Johnson-Carson Palmer era. It began to percolate right away in the A.J. Green-Andy Dalton chapter with the help of vets like Howard.
"He was a funny guy. The thing about T-Howard is he was a genuine guy," said Rey, pointing to Howard's locker now inhabited by linebacker Vontaze Burfict. "He always had a smile on his face. He was always about helping others."
A funny guy is right. When Howard once heard a scribe asking a question in a Boston accent about playing for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, Howard promptly asked, 'Who is Ma—aahvin?" and would periodically check in during his Bengals career with, "Who's Ma-aahvin?"
For the second time in four years Lewis is dealing with the death of a popular player in the middle of a run to a possible division title. He noted it is different than the Dec. 17, 2009 death of wide receiver Chris Henry in a car accident because Henry was still on the team on injured reserve while Howard played only a full season here after he tore his ACL before the second game of his second season and didn't rehab here.
But Lewis also noted how influential Howard was in the locker room during his brief time as a Bengal and the impact is still felt. Plus, there is the slap-in-the-face irony that the club's next game is in San Diego like it was in '09 after Henry's death.
"It really affects our football team," Lewis said. "This is somebody everybody really had a relationship with and felt for when he got hurt.
"The first thing that comes to mind is his personality and his smile. How giving and caring he was to everyone. He'd be here Tuesday nights taking his foundation group around (for stadium tours) and last year when he was injured he continued to follow through on those commitments. Not only a great player, but a tremendous friend. To everyone. It's a shame for his daughters, for his mom, his father. They're such great people. Such a warm guy, giving guy."
So the bye probably comes at a good time for yet another reason as the Bengals take some time to absorb Howard's loss. While Lewis remembered Howard in their daily meeting Tuesday, he also summoned a teaching point.
"With a lot of our guys headed out of town the next couple of days, it was a great reminder to make good decisions as they travel in their everyday lives," Lewis said. "Don't take things for granted. Obviously he was driving very fast.
"Let's understand that each and every decision you make affects everyone. It affects yourself, your family, your kids and your future, so just be conscious of that."
The loss could also be felt on the offensive side of the ball, where Dalton saw Howard's leadership as a rookie.
"He did a lot for us. He was a great teammate. I was shocked by the news. It's tough to lose a guy like that," Dalton said. "Great in the locker room. It's sad when you hear something like that."
Howard joined forces with veterans who were already Bengals, such as left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko among others (Robert Geathers, Leon Hall, Michael Johnson, Kyle Cook) to form a core of solid leaders.
"He did a lot of things on the field and off the field that were just the way you would want to do it; it's devastating," Whitworth said. "He always had the smile. AIways came to work with it. I saw him when he worked out here (in September). He was in good spirits. He was Thomas."
That was the upbeat, hopeful guy Lewis saw when the Bengals called him in with some other veteran linebackers to work out in the wake of a series of injuries late in the preseason.
"We just didn't feel like he was where he needed to be," Lewis said.
Whitworth had texted Howard just a few weeks ago when he signed in Atlanta. On Tuesday, the shock and message were probably still there.
"I told my wife you're going to have a little gloom over you for a while just kind of thinking about it; it's tough," Whitworth said. "He's someone that we'll definitely keep with us because he was a special guy."